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What Is Negative SEO?

Posted 26/04/2012

Google Negative SEOThe concept of Negative SEO has been around for ages – but you may have seen it resurface over the last month or so. Although there are several hot topics in SEO at the moment, it is worth taking the time to find out what all this Negative SEO fuss is about.

So what is Negative SEO?

Boiled down to its key concept, Negative SEO is the act of purchasing spammy links and pointing them at your competitors’ sites with the intention of getting them penalised. This allows your site with its non spammy links to rise above them (in theory).

Why is everyone talking about it at the moment?

Google has been a very busy bunny over the last few months and has been rolling out algorithm updates and announcing new ways of combating spam in their search results. As ever, the announcements are vague and some of the tactics employed by Google have had an element of FUD to say the least.

Let us review:

1. Early in 2011, Google starts sending out messages via Webmaster Tools to sites that it believes are essentially selling links in order to increase the rankings of other sites. Paid links for increasing rankings are against Google’s guidelines.

Excerpt from the message:

“We’ve detected that some or all of your pages are using techniques that are outside our quality guidelines, which are available here:

http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=35769&hl=en

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links on your site pointing to other sites that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. For more information about our linking guidelines, visit http://www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=66356&hl=en”

2. Mid 2011, Google starts sending out messages for buying links and pointing them at your domain.

Excerpt from the message:

“Dear site owner or webmaster of http://www.domain.com/, 

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.”

3. November 2011 – Google slightly amends the wording on their guidelines (thanks to Shaun Anderson for the following information)

“Also if you look at the changes Google has made to their guidelines, it paints another picture again.
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.” Then, in November, it got “slightly” modified… just a TINY fraction too:
“Can competitors harm ranking? There’s ALMOST nothing a competitor can do to harm your ranking or have your site removed from our index. If you’re concerned about another site linking to yours, we suggest contacting the webmaster of the site in question. Google aggregates and organizes information published on the web; we don’t control the content of these pages.”

4. March 2012 – Google sends out 700,000 messages via Webmaster Tools to sites, a lot of which appear to be about unnatural linking techniques.

webmaster communication

image via: searchengineland

The message:

“Dear site owner or webmaster of xxxxxxxxx,

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.

We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,

Google Search Quality Team”

5. March 2012 – Matt Cutts (head of Web Spam at Google) mentions an algorithm change that will specifically target over optimisation. You can hear the audio here.

Excerpt:

“We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site.”

6. Google de-indexed the blog network Build My Rank (a network of blogs where you could submit articles with keyword rich anchor text links pointing back to your site to artificially inflate your rankings in Google).

Build my Rank gets de-indexed

7. SEOs start talking about Negative SEO, again:

What should you do about Negative SEO?

Although there has been some evidence that Negative SEO can work (although the sites that were used could be considered a little questionable for the test), the main advice is don’t panic.

If you have bought or paid for questionable links in the past (or are worried that you may be a target), you need to :

1. Keep a close eye on your Webmaster Tools messages.  It appears in most cases that sites see a drop 2-3 weeks after receiving the message.

2. If you get a message, don’t ignore it; start an investigation into your backlinks (use a tool like Open Site Explorer, Majestic or Link Diagnosis)

3. Try and remove the possibly offensive links, document everything and write a nice email to Google detailing all that you have done. Show willing!

If you have never done anything naughty ever, you should still keep an eye on your Webmaster Tools as the Negative SEO trend takes off (there are already a number of companies offering this service) and make sure that you continue to encourage great sites to link to yours (the more your site is trusted in Google the less chance it has of falling foul of Negative SEO).

Other articles on Negative SEO, what to look out for and what to do if you get the dreaded message:

Recommended Articles

Main Image: http://popinfluence.blogspot.co.uk

Comments
  1. This is such a hot topic at the moment, it really has split the SEO community right down the middle. Google’s Pierre Far has said categorically that bad links do not carry any negative weight, however Danny Sullivan claims Pierre is mistaken and that links can carry negative weight!

    Robert Deans

    • Thanks for the comment Rob, Negative SEO is definitely a hot topic at the moment. No-one seems to have come up with any real concrete evidence at the moment (unless someone can point me in the direction of some) that proves that Negative SEO is possible. I think that any site that has an already dubious link profile could be a fairly easy target. The fact that Google is going full out on this and with sites dropping from the index not long after the warning shows that they aren’t messing around.

      If Negative SEO is possible at the moment Google needs to be addressing it fast before we become polluted with companies that offer to get you to number one by blasting spammy links at the competitors above your site

      Wayne Barker

  2. Susan Hallam

    I reckon there are 2 parts to the “negative SEO” story: getting punished for black hat SEO activities that you have been doing yourself, and then black hat activities inflicted upon you by your competitors as a campaign of SEO Sabotage. It is the latter that is worthy of some further discussion here.

    Wayne’s blog post has generated a number of phone calls into the office (thanks, Wayne…) that would appear to identify certain sectors that may appear to be subject to these Negative SEO Sabotage attacks.

    Pay Day Loans
    ———————–

    One example worth investigating further might websites optimising for the key phrase “Pay Day Loans”

    It’s a unimaginably lucrative business, lending money at 1737%. And it is truly an “anything goes” industry, particularly for high earning affiliates. Make money now, get the rankings and don’t worry about long term consequences.

    Of course it is impossible to tell whether long standing pay day loan companies are crashing out of the results because of their own black hat activities, or because of competitive SEO sabotage, but the phone calls into the office are claiming sabotage.

    Rand Fishkin has produced a whiteboard about this topic, and his advice is if you are under competitive attack (lousy link building, fake Google reviews, etc) then be sure to inform Google Webmaster tools.
    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/negative-seo-myths-realities-and-precautions-whiteboard-friday

    Susan Hallam

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